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Meditations in a Time of Delusions and Lies - 14: Making the Protocols of Zion Come True – or Not

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October 27, 2006

Allen Ginsberg and I were driving to an event a few years before his death. He asked me if he could try out a political formulation on me. The event was a fundraiser poetry reading for the Middle East Children's Alliance, and he had given thought to a way to describe the awful reality of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

"There is a conspiracy," he said, his finger upraised in one of his Buddhist rabbinical poses, "between rightwing Zionists and Christian fundamentalists to make the Protocols of the Elders of Zion come true."

I laughed and suggested he use it in a poem. Our looks acknowledged both the absurdity and bizarre truth of the statement. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is the anti-Semitic hoax cooked up by a Russian intellectual in the service of the Czarist regime's plan to incite pogroms to kill off one third of the Russian Empire's Jews (another third would convert, and the final third would emigrate) to solve the Czar's "Jewish problem." The book purports to present a plan by Jewish sages to take over the world and extend a universal regime of tyranny and greed.

A brief scan indicates just how little the Protocols resembles any Jewish religious text; it is quite transparently a hoax. Nonetheless, the Protocols has managed to continue to thrive, with always enough people who find it believable to pass it on. It circulates widely in the Arab world, mainly because it seems to offer some explanation for Israel's brutality. I have spent too much time arguing with Arab students that the book is a hoax: what Israel has done is actually bad enough. No matter how much the book is exposed, the anti-Semitic myth of world domination persists.

So, then, what of the joint conspiracy Allen Ginsberg invoked? The Protestant fundamentalists have become fervent supporters of Israel, egging on Israel to extend the settlements in the West Bank and invade Lebanon. Many of these fundamentalists gleefully anticipated that the recent war in Lebanon would be World War III. They were disappointed but still hold out hopes for more horror. For them, the creation and expansion of Israel is a necessary part of their end-days scenario. Once the Jews gather to their ancient homeland, there will be a huge war – the famed Armageddon – in which most Jews will die (along with many others). A remnant of Jews will survive to witness the Jewish Messiah come to earth to beat back Satan's armies. By the stigmata the handful of Jews still alive recognize their Messiah as Jesus – if they weren't so stubborn two millenia ago all of this could have been avoided! – who proceeds to rule the world from Jerusalem.

I don't want to butt into anyone's religion. But . . . any scenario or fantasy, whether religious or nationalist, that reaches its climax with great piles of dead Jews makes me very uncomfortable. It even seems downright anti-Semitic. American Jews are ordinarily very uneasy around the fundamentalists, who are also perceived as a threat to their religious freedom in the U.S. Nonetheless, in the 1980s, Prime Minister Menachem Begin gave Rev. Jerry Falwell a medal for his support of Israel. Israeli leaders gladly welcome the enthusiastic support of such rightwing Protestants – while they ignore their grisly apocalypic scenario as one more ridiculous fantasy of the goyem.

Meanwhile, rightwing Zionists – it's hard to tell nowadays left from right, but it seems that "rightwing" now includes just about the entire Israeli leadership except for the peace camp – entertain more and more fantasies of their own. Recently, the ruling coalition brought in to its ranks the extremist party of Avigdor Lieberman which advocates "transfer" (a polite terms for the violent expulsion of Palestinians). Building walls, making unilateral decisions, invading Gaza . . . on and on: the Israeli leadership continues to be busy creating enemies.

Not to be outdone, the American Zionist leadership has been tilting further and further to the right for years, working very hard to dominate congress and to shut up any dissent. Tom Hayden, major leader of the anti-Vietnam War movement, has written recently about how he and Jane Fonda kept silent at the start of Israel's last invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Running for elected office, Hayden was threatened by the Israel lobby if he raised objections – and he kept his mouth shut, much to his chagrin decades later. He made a point to raise his objections during the recent invasion.

Recently, NYU professor of European history Tony Judt was prevented from giving a lecture at the Polish consulate because Abraham Foxman and others of the Anti-Defamation League denounced him as an enemy of Israel. Prof. Judt is a mainstream figure, long a supporter of Israel before becoming disillusioned and voicing more and more criticisms of its policies, so this attempt at censorship seemed even more shocking. We can modify Allen Ginsberg's formulation: ADL's Abraham Foxman seemed to demonstrate how the Israel lobby's heavy-handed attempt at repression made the recent controversial article criticizing the Israel lobby's excessive power by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt come true.

But could there be another conspiracy other than the one summed up by Allen Ginsberg's dark humor? Could there be a happier conspiracy?

Recently, I heard Palestinian intellectual Ali Abunimah speak about the need to break the deadlock in the conflict. He spoke of the new idea of a single, bi-national, democratic, secular state – actually a modification of old ideas extending from Martin Buber to George Habash. This was interesting; but I heard something I hadn't heard before. When asked about the refugee problem, he advocated that all the displaced Palestinians should return – not surprising for a Palestinian to say. He noted that the Israelis have aleady done studies indicating that the country could absorb another million people (they were hoping they would be Jews).

But then Abunimah said something remarkable: that the Israeli Law of Return would stay in effect as part of the needs of the Israeli Jewish part of the country. I was astonished!

The Law of Return – which allows any Jew to become an Israeli citizen virtually overnight – was designed to make Israel the refuge for persecuted Jews that the early Zionists sought. In the face of any pogrom or other emergency, any Jew could flee to the Jewish state for safety. The law is highly discriminatory: the fact that a Palestinian refugee born in Jaffa cannot return while any Jew, whether born in Brooklyn or Bucharest, could "return" remains one of the most hurtful aspects of the conflict from a Palestinian point of view. Ali Abunimah went on to say that maybe, with peace and the return of the refugees (without displacing Israelis), Israel/Palestine could, in fact, become a refuge for Jews. As of now, it's a not. Israel is a cauldron of fear and war and hate – not much of a refuge, really – but in a bi-national state maybe it could be an oasis of peace.

I have never heard a Palestinian advocate that the Law of Return should remain as part of a final settlement. Obviously, Ali Abunimah's ideas are his own and perhaps they are utopian or even foolish – but he has been willing to dream and to entertain forbidden ideas. I find this one of the few signs of hope during the current deadlock: the ability to dream. Maybe, after all, there are more Israelis and Palestinians and others who are trying to come up with new ideas – who are so fed up with war and suffering that they are willing to imagine better futures.

Perhaps there is another conspiracy: A plot of progressive Israelis and Palestinians with anti-imperialist Americans to make [fill in the blank: the United Nations Charter, Sermon of the Mount, Book of Isaiah, etc.] come true.

Hilton Obenzinger
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Hilton Obenzinger is the author of "American Palestine: Melville, Twain and the Holy Land Mania" (Princeton), among many other books of criticism, poetry and fiction, and the recipient of the American Book Award. His most recent book is the (more...)
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